Verdi - Macbeth

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday June 27 2010.

Conductor: Paul Daniel. Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Sets and costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak. Lighting: Felice Ross. Video: Denis Guéguin. Macbeth: Scott Hendricks. Banco: Carlo Colombara. Lady Macbeth: Iano Tamar. Dama di lady Macbeth: Janny Zomer. Macduff: Andrew Richards. Malcolm: Benjamin Bernheim. Medico/Servo/Araldo: Justin Hopkins. Sicario: Gerard Lavalle. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

Strenuously thought-provoking productions are probably better taken in on cold winter evenings than sweltering summer afternoons. When you’re hot, tired and (after lunch) sleepy, you don’t even make the most of the singing, a shame when it’s as good as it was last Sunday in Brussels, the end of our 2009-2010 season.

The male leads were all singers I’d already taken note of separately, in various works:

1. "We had a strong cast of men. Indeed, they all made themselves heard over the row from the pit [in Szymanowski's King Roger, also directed by Warlikowski], and I doubt they could have been better. Eric Cutler soared radiantly through the difficult part, with remarkable ease; Scott Hendricks was a very powerful high baritone; and Stefan Margita was Stefan Margita, which is perfectly fine by me." Hendricks is also a great actor, wholly invested, as they say in French, in the part as seen (i.e. pretty tortured) by Warlikowski. He and Iano Tamar, his equal in commitment and presence, made a great couple of political climbers.

2. Re Verdi's Requiem, also in Brussels: "Carlo Colombara is a typical Verdi bass, already singing Philip II, that I singled out in La Forza last June ('... bass Carlo Colombara, the Verdian voice of the show, really')." He got off to a shaky start, but was soon up to speed, rather like a jumbo jet appraoching take-off. Some critics find him a bit too blustery but I had no commplaints.

3. "The young American tenor Andrew Richards [as Werther] tried perhaps even too hard but shows definite promise of a Carreras kind, if he can learn to achieve a more even timbre throughout the range and avoids the temptation to strain his voice by showing off." Apparently he's learnt. He's now an unusually good Verdian tenor.

And by bringing together three men who had stood out separately, La Monnaie ensured that the whole male cast was outstanding. La Monnaie is good enough for me, but I wonder how long it will be before these guys move on to even greater things - surely it can only be a matter of time before a singing actor of Hendricks' calibre - and a Texan, to boot - gets sucked into the Met star system? (I just checked his web site: "Future engagements include debuts with the Bayerische Staatsoper, Royal Opera House Covent Garden and the Metropolitan in New York..."). But if that happens it's unlikely he'll need to bend so willingly and well to the demands of a Warlikowski.

Unless I'm mistaken, I'd never seen Iano Tamar before. We're often told Verdi wanted an ugly voice for Lady Macbeth, or at any rate not a beautiful one. Tamar's voice is idiosyncratic, often very fine in its comfort zones but sometimes far from lovely, landing on lower notes in a kind of vibrato-less honk. It's hard to say what other roles she would be right for, but she's definitely right for Lady Macbeth. Very high notes were troublesome, especially if rapid; so I didn't expect her to go for the top at the end of "Une macchia." But she did and, to my surprise and my neighbour's, nailed it, sang it as a full note (no whimpering) and made it sound as if she could go higher. And she, too, is a great singing actress, radiating drama - especially in the glittery, glamorous dresses and big, Thatcher-plus hair Warlikowski likes his wicked matrons to wear.

For the orchestra, I can refer back to that Verdi Requiem: "... brisk, no-nonsense Verdi, no fancy phrasing, no messing about with the tempi, intensely human in the gentler passages but starkly matter-of-fact in its underlying message: for all the pleading, there is no hope." And the chorus were on magnificent form, filling La Monnaie with sound from under the dome.

As you all know, I'm a Warlikowski fan. But as all fans know, your idols aren't always at their best. Ask supporters of France's national soccer team. This production, though to me less interesting, less coherent and, to some extent, more regie-as-we-already-know-it than others I've seen by him, nevertheless managed to be unsettling, not to say harrowing.

There was a single set with various props wheeled in and out, as is often the case these days. The basic room was apparently a gym hall, as there were sports markings on the parquet, with tall windows. I think this was meant to show the precarious way Macbeth, the victorious soldier, and his Lady lived in a war-torn country. There was a glass box across the rear that could move forward when needed and, to the left, a very useful washbasin.

Lots of video was used. A film I've never heard of: "Nicholas Ray's 1948 noir They Live By Night, a film whose criminal central couple bear obvious comparison to Macbeth and his wife," (according to the review on Musical Criticism; but on Wikipedia I discovered the hero of the film is in fact innocent) figured first on a giant curtain, then on TVs wheeled to the sides of the hospital beds that, in rectangles of vertical light, represented four bedrooms at night. There was a fair amount of filming from above, very effectively through the ceiling fans, e.g. as Macbeth and Banco played chess together in fatigues on the floor, during the opening bars; and during the banquet scene, where there were few guests (the chorus were, throughout, up in the gods and represented on stage by single singers, or children) there was a hidden camera in the centre of the dining table, shakily capturing the fear on people's faces. Lady Macduff, by the way, looked exactly like a nouveau russe trophy wife: ice-blonde hair, long fur coat draped over her shoulders, high heels and a sour look on her face.

The Macbeths were played as a corrupt, Ceausescu kind of couple, rising quickly to power surrounded by aides de camp in officers' jackets, black stockings and stilettos (great legs, you have to hand it to them) who later became retainers serving drinks and dinner. At the end, with the fall of their masters, they would commit collective suicide at the rear. Rising quickly then, but obsessed with or haunted by children, for obvious reasons found in the plot (nothing in Warlikowski's work, it seems to me, strays far from the original, whatever angry old ladies may say at the interval). The witches were little Lolitas in masks. Duncan's coffin was carried on by eight little boys in black suits (which, for some reason, enraged the usherette). The Macduffs brought their little son to the banquet. The singing apparitions were crippled kids, and Banco's descendents, little Bancos all with his head, were seated, in their little black suits, at old-fashioned school desks in the "aquarium" at the rear. When Macbeth found himself "alone," he was in fact surrounded at the dining table by kids pulling apart plastic dolls and casting away the limbs.

Rising quickly, then, haunted by children, and apparently declining slowly after a reign of some years: by the time Birnam Wood turned up, Macbeth was alrady slumped in his wheelchair, and the hair of his magnetic wife (what a bête de scène Iano Tamar is) had turned quite grey.

I suspect if it hadn't been so hot up there and I hadn't been so tired, I'd have got much more out of this. In any case, a Warlikowski staging, as directed as can be, is full of details, so seeing it again would no doubt bring new understanding. If I can see it again with the same cast this coming winter, I will.

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